The small town of Bluffton lies between the Interstate 95 highway and Hilton Head Island and it’s become a popular place to stay, with a population of 13,000 in 2010 almost doubling in size a decade later.
Bluffton Village Festival takes place every spring, attracting artisans and musicians to celebrate the local culture found along this part of the South Carolina coastline but Old South Golf Links has also played its part in showcasing the local sporting culture since the early 1990s.
Designed by Clyde Johnston, the course has several spectacular holes located on the intra-coastal waterway and it features all the exciting qualities that golf on Hilton Head is known for: island greens, towering live oaks and an abundance of wildlife.
The architect was quoted as saying: "the variety of the setting from oak forest to open pasture to tidal salt marsh provided an opportunity to vary the design elements and strategy of play.”
Highlight holes include the 370-yard par four 7th, playing to an island fairway, then to an island green, and the par four 16th, where the tee boxes are tucked in the woods, with the two-tiered island green hidden from view at the end of a long, left doglegging fairway.
In the truest sense, every golf course should reflect its environment. This spirit, core to our game, is captured in designs of the most prolific golf architects of the past and present. Alister MacKenzie, a trained military camouflage specialist, for instance, worked tirelessly to ensure his masterpieces blended into their natural settings.
While certainly not a requirement for great architecture, stimulating scenery intensifies the mystique and enjoyment of the round, especially when a course pays homage to seaside roots. It is no surprise that clumps of the greatest courses in the world still exist on the coasts of Scotland, Monterey, and Long Island. Another such pocket of courses thrive in one of my favorite golf destinations, the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
Stretching from Charleston to Savannah, the charm, slower pace of life, and natural beauty of the Lowcountry captivate the senses. It is hard not to relax in this environment, forgetting worries and focusing solely on the shot at hand.
It is disappointing, then, that with its superb ecological potential, Lowcountry golf courses are so frequently bland. Their unmistakable style includes flat topography, predictable bunkering, and condo-lined corridors. What’s more, even with all of the gorgeous marshland and tidal estuaries, very few courses actually feature holes on saltwater, and those that do are often exclusive.
In breaking the monotonous mold of typical Lowcountry golf, Old South Golf Links may provide the best value in the entire Hilton Head area. Old South features thought-provoking and varied architecture, is priced affordably, and most importantly, keenly and uniquely highlights the environs…without having to play through neighborhoods.
As if this feat were not impressive enough, Old South allows players to experience three unique natural settings: open parkland pasture, live oak marine forest, and intra-coastal waterways all come into play throughout the round. Each is brought to life by the exceptional design work of Clyde Johnston.
An examination of the holes at Old South better illuminates these magnificent elements:
• #1: With a pond running down the left side of the opener, the wide portion of fairway right may seem inviting. This deceptive strip of short grass can leave one blocked from an aerial approach due to the overhanging branches of a large oak. While the putting surface welcomes run-up shots, it is shallow and guarded by a bunker and water in the back. The 1st at Old South truly sets the tone for the day – an adventure where options abound.
• #2: Playing up and over a knoll to a blind fairway, the long par four 2nd also features many possibilities. Two palmetto trees situated like goal posts guide the player off the tee. Laying up with a metal may be wise, though more aggressive players can take on a patch of rough which bisects the fairway, pressing their luck for a good bounce and added yardage. There is a serious advantage to having a wedge in hand to this undulating green.
• #7: Among my favorite of 3700+ holes played, the 7th at Old South breaks all architectural concepts by being the most open, inviting form of target golf I have encountered. Transitioning from forest to saltwater estuary, windy conditions may require any club from driver to a mid-iron in order to avoid sandy waste areas, and best position oneself on the generous island-fairway. Aggressiveness here has any number of benefits, including a broader landing zone and a superior angle to this shallow island green. Once again, width showcases itself as perhaps the greatest lever to engrain strategy in a golf course…even when the hole could be categorized as exacting.
• #8: The par three 8th is a fantastic reminder that great holes do not require bunkers. With the green sloping from back left to front right, and the wind often working against that slope, the architects created a mid-iron shot that will have players running through a wide variety of shot options before pulling a club.
• #9: The par four 9th offers perplexing trade-offs from the tee. The green is narrow, deep, and best approached from the right portion of the fairway, which is guarded by a large bunker. While there is more room left and long with a driver in hand, one’s second shot will need to carry a massive bunker and stick the landing on this thin putting surface.
• #10: Frequently, trees in the middle of corridors tend to annoy players and harm turf quality. The 10th at Old South Golf Links is a strong exception, as the feature adds complexity. From the tee, this long par four often plays straight into the prevailing wind. With its wide and delightfully rumpled fairway, one might almost feel they are on a true links. A large tree near the green offers players creative options. If you wish to loft it over, you must be aggressive on the tee shot; if you wish to run the ball up, you must be wary of a large bunker and pond right – not to mention, the very shallow green complex. Delightfully beguiling, the 10th is certainly a riveting start to the back nine.
• #12: Turning sharply to the left yet offering a superior angle from the right, the preferred shoulder at the 12th is guarded by trees, a bunker, and a pond. Fascinatingly, this hole literally “turns” into a new ecosystem – thick coastal forest.
• #13: When one sees the 13th on the scorecard – the shortest par four on the course – they may automatically think “bombs away.” But, standing on the tee reveals an entirely different story. Dense woodlands on either side of a fairway leading to an extremely shallow putting surface demands a favorite wedge in hand on the second shot, a far more important consideration than sheer distance.
• #14: The par five 14th is another hole which favors no player and features multiple natural environments. After navigating a narrow tee shot, the green bursts into a wide open field, encouraging fearless players who wish to reach the hole in two. Errant shots, however, can be severely penalized. Miss short, and be challenged with an awkward bunker shot; miss long, and watch your ball be swallowed by grass hollows.
• #17: Showcasing some of the best views on any public (really, any) golf course in the entire Lowcountry, the triangular shape of the green complex at the par three 17th seems to offer some respite at the front. However, a massive waste area can easily engulf even slightly errant iron shots.
• #18: Old South finishes on an exciting par five. From the tee and on the approach, the left half of the hole generally provides the best angle. To place a drive there, players must contend with a diagonal creek crossing the fairway. The crowned green will test the bravado of even the best ball-strikers who consider reaching in two.
The unheralded Old South Golf Links hits all marks for greatness in a Lowcountry golf adventure. The variety in settings and ecosystems, the ways in which they are incorporated throughout the round, and the absence of houses on the property provide a stunning natural experience. The design of the course highlights the beauty of the environment while still offering strategic architecture. It is the type of course that will ask you to pull every club in your bag, hit every shot in your repertoire, and leave you itching to return…at an affordable price, no less. When it is safe to travel again, strongly consider grabbing a tee time at Old South Golf Links.